Attrition: Scary Suicidal South Korean Soldiers

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August 27, 2014: In South Korea the media, and many parents of young conscripts, are in an uproar over a recent spike in suicides among young soldiers. The army tried to defuse this by pointing out that the suicide rate for young (age 20-29) soldiers was 11 per 100,000 per year which was less than half the rate for civilian males of the same age. This did not placate the critics who pointed out that the army had made a lot of changes since 2001 to lower the suicide rate. This included screening out young conscripts who fit the profile of the thousands who had committed suicide in the past and monitored soldiers for suicidal tendencies. In any event suicide was only one of many unpleasant aspects of military service in South Korea.

South Korea has long been known for the brutality junior soldiers and marines had to deal with. As any South Korean veteran, and many American troops who have served in South Korea, can tell you; there's a lot of anger and violence in the South Korean military, especially among the lower ranks and in the barracks. Most of this is in the form of NCOs disciplining their subordinates. For over half a century, this situation was generally not publicized or talked about much. But in the last decade that has been changing.

But the symptoms, if not the disease, continue to surface in ways that attract media attention. In 2001 there was a big media stir about how there was a high suicide rate in the military. In the next ten years South Korea has made a big effort to lower the annual death rate among its troops. By 2005, it had been lowered so much that it was lower than the civilian rate (for men the same age). Moreover, deaths from accidents and abuse were reduced by more than half.

The death rate was reduced by dealing with some of the military traditions that had little to do with combat readiness, but everything to do with the stress that led to suicides, murder and accidents. The South Korean military traditions were largely inherited from the Japanese, who, before World War II, had a rather brutal attitude about how soldiers were handled. During World War II, many Koreans were allowed to join the Japanese army as support troops, and were subjected to the brutal Japanese discipline. Sergeants were allowed to use physical violence freely, and soldiers who had been in longer, even a few months longer, got away with similar abuse of the more recent recruits. American soldiers who saw this, and many did (as U.S. and South Korean units were often based close together), were appalled. Many of the young South Korean soldiers were terrified, or worse.

South Korea has had conscription for the last sixty years, so most adult males have served 2-3 years in uniform. In addition to the brutality, military life is regimented 24/7. Living conditions are not all that great, and pay is minimal. For years, there have been suggestions, from veterans, that South Korea adopt practices similar to the Americans. This came about because, since the Koran war, over half a million South Korean soldiers have served in American units as KATUSAs (Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army). South Korean conscripts who speak passable English are eligible for this, and it is a much sought after assignment. The KATUSAs remain part of the South Korean army, but report to American units and are given a job that would otherwise have to be performed by an American soldier. The KATUSAs are treated just like the American troops, living in the same barracks, eating in the same mess halls and getting the same medical care. However, there are South Korean officers and NCOs available for any disciplinary problems, and to administer pay and other personnel matters (like leave).

South Korean reformers note that there are few disciplinary problems. The KATUSAs are usually smarter than the average 18 year old conscript and see service in an American unit as an excellent opportunity to improve their English skills, and learn more about Americans. This helps later on, for getting into college and/or getting a good job. Also, the living conditions are much better, and the work generally more interesting. On the downside, KATUSAs come to their American units right out of basic training, without any specialized training. So KATUSAs generally don't get any high tech jobs, and have to be trained for whatever work they do get assigned. But since most of the KATUSAs are good students to begin with, and ambitious, there are often opportunities to train them for some pretty complex jobs.

The South Korean Air Force was the first service to listen to the KATUSAs, and lighten up. Air force troops were given more control over their free time, and less rigid discipline from the NCOs and officers. It worked. The troops were happier and more effective. Over the last decade, the army has been adopting similar practices, despite fierce opposition from many of the older officers and NCOs. To solve the bullying problem among the troops themselves, platoons are formed right after basic training, with all the troops having the same time in service. Any troops who bullied another soldier, were punished. As a result, hundreds of deaths a year have been avoided. Military service has also become less stressful, and many commanders have noted an increase in effectiveness among their soldiers.

The South Korean Marine Corps did not ease up much on the old-school attitudes towards discipline, and tolerated the abuse inflicted on junior troops. This was seen as something that would make them tougher, and better marines. Initially trained by U.S. Marine Corps instructors, the South Koreans sought to emulate the American marines. The U.S. marines had a formidable reputation, and the South Koreans admired how the American marines had beaten the hated (for over 40 years of cruel occupation) Japanese. But the South Korean marines sought to surpass their teachers in toughness. And that they often did, and allowed brutality among the troops as part of that toughness training. But after some particularly gruesome incidents the marines were told to change.

The South Korean army is still a much more violent and scarier place than the U.S. Army, or most other armies on the planet. Koreans, in general, are pretty macho, and into physical conditioning and various forms of hand-to-hand combat. As American soldiers serving in South Korea learn early on, if you see a South Korean soldier who's had a few drinks, and seems to be in a bad mood, get out of his way. But South Koreans have to be fearful as well, and want it to stop.

 

 


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